Sequels are tricky business. Occasionally, as in the cases of “The Godfather Part II,” “The Dark Knight,” or “The Empire Strikes Back,” they take advantage of the fact that audiences are familiar with the characters and the basic premises of the story, and take it to deeper, more interesting, more complicated places. However, this seems to be the exception that proves the rule: 90% of the time, sequels are a waste of time, a lame rehash of what went before. Think “Blair Witch 2,” “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Teen Wolf Too,” “Batman Returns,” or the entire “Star Wars” prequel set. (We won’t even get into the difficulty of making a decent third movie. That’s as rare as a nun in a bikini.)
So to say that “Iron Man 2” is pretty good, if not quite as good as the original, is to say that it’s better than 90% of sequels. It doesn’t reach that “Dark Knight” level; nothing is added to the Iron Man legacy here. But it retains the trademark wit of the first movie; it’s still light on its feet, witty, clever, and fun. It’s odd to say, but this is a legitimate action franchise where the action sequences are the least interesting thing on the screen. Instead of counting the minutes between spectacular mash-ups, you’ll find yourself counting the minutes those spectacular mash-ups eat up, and waiting for the film to get back to what it does best—dialogue, character, and dynamics.
We pick up right where we left off; in fact, the final lines of the first film play under the title sequences of “Iron Man 2.” Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and he wants the world to know it. He’s also dying; a fact he’d rather keep to himself. Turns out the thingamajig that saved his life is slowly killing him. Oh, the irony. Gwyneth Paltrow returns as his assistant/love interest. The chemistry and comedic timing between Downey Jr. and Paltrow is better than what you’ll find in most romantic comedies.
The villains (aside from the government) are Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke. Rockwell, who plays rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, steals most of the scenes he’s in as an overly dramatic megalomaniac who has the ego to match Stark, but not the IQ. Rourke is Ivan Vanko, a mad Russian scientist who has reasons to want Stark dead. Rourke is adequate in the role; he’s not given all that much to do, really, but he is good at growling, has a passable evil laugh, and is able to convince us that he can be both a tattooed Russian hood with silver teeth and a brilliant hacker/scientist. Though they work together, the two villains are opposites; Hammer is all show and bluster, while Vanko sits back and smirks, knowing that he’s smarter than Hammer, and will have the last (evil) laugh.
To round out the cast, let’s add a very dull and wooden Scarlett Johansson; we are aware she has something to hide before she really has anything to hide it behind. Johansson is disappointing, but the introduction of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is enjoyable and intriguing. (I have a comic book in which Nick Fury insists that if anyone ever makes a movie about the Avengers, Samuel L. Jackson should play him. Sure enough.) And somewhere between the heroes and the villains is Don Cheadle, who replaces Terrence Howard (his first line: “It’s me, I’m here, deal with it.”) as the military dude that Downey Jr. trusts and turns to. Even director Jon Favreau gets in on the action—literally. His cameo appearance in the first movie has evolved into a full-on supporting role; he’s Tony’s driver, boxing partner, bodyguard, and sometime sidekick. He even gets to beat up a bad guy.
Back to the story. As I mentioned, Iron Man is dying. The presence or possibility of supervillains appearing must seem somewhat irrelevant to a man who doesn’t expect to see his next birthday anyway. This leads to a few scenes that feel like they’re stolen from an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music:” he parties, he drinks, he drives fast cars too fast. He embarrasses and exasperates the people who care about him. Wait…Stark always did those things. The difference is that before, he did them because he thought he was immortal. Now he does them because his mortality is all he can think about.
The supervillains don’t know that he’s dying, however, and aren’t ready to be irrelevant. In the most exciting action sequence, Rourke steps into the middle of a Formula One race track wielding some kind of electrified whips, and cuts in half the car Downey Jr. is driving. Downey Jr. looks small, soft, and very, very mortal next to the bulging muscles and shiny teeth of Rourke; he survives thanks to the absolute best suitcase-packing job ever in the universe. It pays to have a competent assistant, especially if you’re a superhero. After the battle, Downey Jr. gives him a few tips about how to make his supervillain apparatus better. The guy really does have a death wish. Rockwell rescues/recruits Rourke, and now the guy with the money has met the guy with the brains. Pretty clear where this is going.
“Iron Man 2” lacks the emotional resonance of the first film; I think we all identified with Tony Stark in that one. Who in America hasn’t felt hijacked by terrorists and/or big corporate interests and been required to rely on ingenuity and persistence to work out of a problem? Who hasn’t wanted to fly into the desert and open a can of whoop-ass on the bad guys? There’s nothing like that here. “Iron Man 2” is a straightforward action movie; a comic book story set in a comic book world. Still, it hits its marks, and is a fun movie, an enjoyable roller coaster ride, with just enough action sequences to keep teenage boys happy while supplying more than enough wit, humor, and dialogue to satisfy the rest of us as well.